Monday, February 25, 2008

What is Intergenerational...Really?

One of the most powerful faith formation factors in a teen's life is having a mentor-type relationship with an older Christian. In fact, in my experience, only parents active in spiritual leadership in their homes are more productive.

In my last couple of years as youth pastor I encouraged the older generation to make connections with the younger (and vice versa) as outlined in Titus 2. Initially, most people pointed to the worship service as being intergenerational. However, it soon became evident that very little connecting was taking place in this setting. Sure, several generations were sitting in the same room, singing the same songs, and listening to the same sermon. Sometimes a teen and an adult would sing in the same worship team or share responsibility passing the plate. But even then, no connection would happen.

What followed was a constant unnatural struggle to make intergenerational connections happen. What we discovered is that the structures most churches operate under prevent these from happening. For starters, we're simply not used to having different generations come together in significant ways, let alone share space together on equal footing. Our programs isolate us from each other. Scripturally, though, spiritual wisdom is to be imparted from the older, wiser generation to the younger, inexperienced.

So is this possible to happen in a significant way in the today's current form of church?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Downside of Big Events (part 3)

I know there are people who read my last two posts that are yelling at their screens, "There's nothing wrong with big events. They're found all over in scripture. Read the book of Acts!"

I know. I read my bible too. :)

But for a minute let's look at the approach the apostles took. I think they did it differently than we tend to do it.

We tend to plan. I think they simply prepared. There's a difference.

Let's start with the ultimate big event found in scripture - Pentecost. No doubt it was big. 3000 salvations in one sermon - all without a sound system.

The apostles didn't plan the event. They were prepared for it.

They weren't in the upper room day after day coaching Peter on what points to cover in the sermon. They didn't put Pentecost on the calendar. They didn't print out an order of service or announce a big gathering. They didn't even have to come up with a "sermon hook". God did all that for them. But, realize it or not at the time, they were preparing for Pentecost by praying together constantly.

But Pentecost is just one example. Sure, there are examples in Acts where they planned to go to such and such a city. In most cases, the plan consisted of going to the synagogue and reasoning with the Jews there. Nothing much beyond that. Never once do we read where Paul says, "Hey, Silas. Let's go to Philippi and get thrown into prison." Yet there was a jailer who needed Jesus and they were prepared to share.

I submit that we probably overplan. If we're always planning the next big thing, we can miss the thing God drops right into our laps.

In Acts 8 God tells Philip to travel the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. Philip had experienced Pentecost and a number of other great "big events". Most of us would assume that the next big thing is going to happen in Gaza because God said to go there. Not so. Philip seems to have been put on the road to find an Ethiopian who was reading scripture. He was prepared to talk with the guy, and baptized him on the spot.

I wonder if I would have walked right past him in my hurry to get to Gaza???

TIf forced to choose, the best thing we can do for our teens is to teach them to be prepared, not to plan. Events tend emphasize the latter.

The Downside of Big Events (part 2)

If you're just joining this discussion, read my previous entry first.

I just want to wrestle with a few questions. Let's assume for this discussion that big events are about evangelism - proclaiming the good news about Jesus and helping teens find salvation through faith in Him. I've planned and participated in tons of these events.

Let's also assume that there are teens who find Jesus through these events.

And let's assume that most of these teens who find Jesus are likely not to continue in relationship with Him. Please resist the temptation to discuss the doctrinal differences we might have in this (i.e. "he was never really saved to begin with" vs. "he lost his salvation"). Let's just acknowledge that a large number of teens who say "I'll follow Jesus" at these events don't.

Now let's assume that big events take a ton of time (and many times, a ton of money) to pull off.

Here are the questions to consider:
  • Are big events worth it, especially considering what they do to condition our teens? (see my last post)
  • Could the time, money, and energy spent on big events be better spent elsewhere?
  • In the long run, is it better to teach teens to minister in the context of their everyday lives? (this is something that every good youth ministry does, some more successfully than others)
  • How are our big Christian events viewed by those who aren't Christian?

Remember, I acknowledge that there are times when taking the bus is better than taking the skateboard. These questions are just designed to help us think through the implications of driving the bus next door to borrow an egg from the neighbor.

The Downside of Big Events

This post will likely generate some emotional responses. The purpose is not to attack or criticise big youth events or those who plan them. I have no doubts that we could generate an exhaustive list of positive things associated with them. Some who read this can attribute their salvation to a big youth event. That's a good thing. A very good thing.

However, I do want to point out some of the weaknesses of big events. These are often overlooked. They're subtle. They often go unnoticed for months, if not years.

Let's start with an analogy. Big events are a vehicle to a destination. At least they should be. If you're doing big events simply for big events sake (or to keep kids out of trouble), the YMCA might be a better fit. I would hope that there's a purpose behind each event we plan (evangelism, service, etc.).

There are lots of ways to get somewhere. Lots of vehicles will work. Some are more appropriate than others. A skateboard works to go to the neighbor's around the corner, but isn't a solid choice if you want to take someone with you. A car is unnecessary for a trip next door, but works well if you're going across town with your family. A bus doesn't work if you're wanting to become intimate with everyone on the trip, but it gets a lot of people to the same destination.

Big events as a bus. Lots of people. Minimal connections.

Are you starting to see the weakness of big events? Nothing necessarily wrong with a bus UNLESS that's the only vehicle your ministry ever chooses to use.

Here's the major weakness I see in big-events based ministry. It trains teens that ________ can only happen on the bus. Fill in the blank with whatever word you like: evangelism, service to others, compassion, discipleship, etc.

Just a week ago I received a call from a former teen who is now attending a state university. He excitedly told of how he was on a "spiritual high" that came from reading his bible in his dorm room. Then he said, "I just want to do something for God. I mean, there's so many of my friends who don't want anything to do with Christianity. I was thinking, man, we really need to do something big for God. I don't know... Something HUGE! Something on campus. Like we need to bring in Chris Tomlin...and, and, and Hillsong United, and some big athlete speaker like Reggie White - except he's dead - but someone like him that they'd really look up to. And it needs to be more than just one should be like every day for a week. But it needs to be bigger than just our campus. And it needs to be bigger than Ohio. I'm thinking it should be, like, HUGE. Like nationwide..."

He went on for at least ten minutes, dropping names of nationally known speakers and artists and talking about filling stadiums and arenas all across the United States. It took everything within me to keep from saying "cha-ching" every time.

Despite my best efforts as a youth pastor to teach him otherwise, he saw big events as the only solution to his friends' "lack of Jesus".

Big events - busses - condition teens to wait to do the things they're supposed to do every day as followers of Jesus. It leads teens to think, "My friend needs Jesus! We need to plan (or wait around for) the next big event." rather than, "My friend needs Jesus! I need to tell him."

More to come...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Failure of Youth Ministry

I was reminded today of a great article called "The Failure of Youth Ministry" that I first read several years ago. I think it gets to the heart of this blog's purpose. It's written by Mike Yaconelli, a pioneer in youth ministry and founder of Youth Specialties, the most trusted name in youth ministry.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Indicators of Spiritual Longevity

I've hinted around this in past posts. This will give some context to some of the conclusions I've come to.

Those of you who have had the privilege of ministering in the same church for several years can do this. You'll probably see the same patterns develop.

A year ago I wrote down the name of every student who had been an ACTIVE part of our youth ministry from the past seven graduating classes. It didn't take too much research to divide them into two piles: those who were still active in thier faith, and those who weren't.

2/3 of the students active in our youth ministry walk away from their faith within a year of graduating high school.

OUCH! Those of you familiar with youth ministry know this to be a problem across the country. In fact, our numbers would be viewed in many circles as pretty exceptional.

So I looked for commonalities in the piles. Initially, I thought the kids who were most involved in youth group, church activities, leadership development efforts, or discipleship programs would be more likely to end up in the "Still Active" pile. I found this not to be the case. Those kids were just as likely to be in the "Walked Away" pile. Those things seemed not to be indicators of a teen's long-term spiritual commitment.

What became evident really quickly was the effect of parents on the faith-development process. I realize that this entire process is a bit subjective and nonscientific, but what I discovered was enough to indicate a real pattern.

We lose 25% of kids who have 2 Christian parents and Dad takes the spiritual lead.
We lose 50% of kids who have 2 Christian parents and Mom takes the spiritual lead.
We lose 66% of kids who have a Christian Dad only
We lose 75% of kids who have a Christian Mom only
We lose 90% of kids who have no Christian parents

So 10% of the kids who have no Christian parents - the "outreach" kids - stick with it. I contacted those kids and asked them all the same question, looking for patterns. Without exception theire was one common factor with the 10% who stuck around. They all had a spiritual mentor - a surrogate spiritual Mom or Dad. A spiritual mentor.

And here's another discovery. Youth workers don't seem to count. (That didn't sound right. Of course youth workers count - let me explain further). The 10% of outreach kids who stuck around all had mentors OUTSIDE the youth group.

Here's what's sad (and what caused me to begin questioning many of the ways we do youth ministry). I realized that parents and mentors were not only underserved in our local youth ministry, they were being completely ignored.

The biggest spiritual assets for youth ministry are largely untapped.

I'm In My Way

Time to open up a can of worms. Got your thinking cap on?

Let's review.

Personal experience in youth ministry shows me that the #1 indicator of a teen's spiritual longevity and commitment is the degree to which parents are involved in their kid's spiritual development. The #2 indicator is the degree in which a teen connects with an older spiritual mentor outside the youth group.

Got it? #1 is parents. #2 is mentors. That's the starting point for the reasoning that follows. (By the way, this concept falls completely in line with scripture...see Deut. 6:6-9, Ephesians 6:4, and Titus 2:1-8 for some examples)

Now, what do most churches with "effective" youth ministries do? They hire a youth pastor.

I've come to believe that this is one of the biggest barriers to #1 and #2 happening! That's right. In most places, the presence of a youth pastor is the biggest barrier to overcome.

Several of you are about to stop reading. A few have already labeled me a heretic. But before you delete me from your "favorites", hear me out. If you've been in youth ministry (paid or not) in a church big enough to have a formal youth program, you've probably seen this happen.

Parents are busy. They "don't have time" for the spiritual stuff. Or maybe they feel unqualified. Or maybe the church programs have conditioned them not to do it. Whatever the case, most parents look for someone they trust to farm out their role of spiritual leader. They're more than happy to trust the youth leader with the spiritual development of their kids (see my last two posts on the Piano Teacher). As I mentioned in a previous post, I've had a parent tell their kid point blank, "It's not my job to teach you to serve others. That's Tracy's job." While most parents won't be this forward about it, their attitudes (and behaviors) reveal they're OK with you taking over their God-given role of spiritual leader.

I received this in an email from a prominent youth leader from a national ministry: "Over the last 12 years, I too have been asked to do EVERYTHING for the kids by some parents."

So the very presence of a youth pastor eliminates indicator #1 (parent spiritual leadership) from ever happening (OK, I admit, there are exceptions).

And we're not much better off with indicator #2 (spiritual mentors). Unfortunately, the minute a youth pastor is hired is the very minute that most church people withdraw from connecting with teens in a real way. At best, they put it on cruise control. At their worst, they completely withdraw.

It's very subtle, yet powerful. It comes in a statement as seemingly benign as, "We're so glad your here to do all you do for those teens. Keep up the good work. We appreciate you."

So, ironically, here's where I (and other youth pastors) found myself. My very presence as a youth pastor causes those who should be engaging with our teens - the very people who will give our teens the most spiritual "staying power" - to step back.

So, as youth pastor I get in my own way of making long-term committed disciples.

This has nothing to do with lack of passion. In fact, the most passionate youth pastors probably face this problem in a bigger way. The more effective you are as a youth pastor, the less likely parents and mentors are to engage. Why should they? You're paid to do it, right? That's the expectation. And expectations often dictate reality.

Are you rubbed the wrong way yet? I sense some of you already arguing with the screen. My intent is not to question the existence of a youth pastor (we'll do that later - HA!). I just want to point this subtle force inherent in this youth ministry system we inherited. Acknowledging a weakness (especially one this big) is a good starting point.

Do you see this happening? If so, how do you address it? How do you push parents and mentors into the role when the expectation is that you (as youth pastor/leader) do it for them?